As horror movies go, this one wasn't as ridiculous as it could be. It might have been improved if it had gone chiefly for mood, rather than offering a predictable selection of cheap thrills and starts (as when unexpected animals bound onto the screen or mechanical toys come to life in moments of greatest tension). And it might have helped if the heroine -- the woman in black, herself -- had kept her shrouded distance to preserve her mystery, rather than flying into our faces and shrieking as only the most wanton ghosts would. She's most effective as an unclear image in a window, sensed more than seen.
Daniel Radcliffe drew me to the film and his understated pain and earnestness adds believability, but it also helped that is a period piece, pulling you more fully into a different world and haunted past than a contemporary film could have.
The movie opens with three little girls at play. They look to be the same age, so I suspected them to be playmates, but I suppose they were sisters. Suddenly, as if possessed, they move to the windows in a trance and all jump to their deaths.
Radcliffe is Arthur Kipps a London lawyer whose wife died in childbirth four years ago. He sees her everywhere, dreams about her is still steeped in depression and is told by his employer that they can't carry him any longer. They're running a business, not a charity. He has to pull out of his doldrums. A widow in a small town has died and he needs to travel there and competently close her estate or he's out of a job. Arthur reluctantly bids adieu to his small son, promising the boy that they'll be separated for 3 days, but the nanny will bring him to visit that weekend.
Kipps travels to the town by train and is coldly welcomed by the innkeeper with whom he had a reservation. He's told that there's no room, but the innkeeper's wife takes pity on him and leads him to the attic -- which is the same room from which the three little girls jumped.
The next day, Kipps finds that the local attorney won't cooperate with him and tries to chase him off. The townspeople avoid him, pull their children into the house as he passes and draw their shades. They tell him to go home, go back to his son. He says that it's because of his son that he must stay. He never thinks to ask why everyone is acting so weird or why it is that the local attorney didn't handle the widow's estate in the first place.
Only one villager treats him kindly, Mr. Bentley, a wealthy man who owns the town's only car. He says many of the citizens are afraid of his fancy vehicle and he scoffs at their paranoia and suspicions, discounting them as a silly, superstitious bunch.
Kipps goes to the widow's old house and realizes that it will take awhile to go through her things (although to me, if he can just prove that she owns the deed to her house, he can sell it rather easily without poring through all of her other documents). The widow lived on an isolated piece of land which is miles away from the village and surrounded by marsh.
Talking to the Bentleys (who have asked him to stay with them) and reading the widow's old letters, Kipps deduces that the widow had doctors declare her sister insane so she could adopt her son and raise him as her own. The widow and her husband were then involved in a carriage accident. They got out, but the boy didn't. He drowned in the marsh and his body was never recovered. The sister, his biological mother, never forgave his adopted mother for what happened. She hung herself in the nursery of the house and has haunted it ever since. I don't understand a few things about this. For instance, there is a picture of the boy with his adopted parents and you can see the figure of the woman in black in a window. This is before she died -- although Kipps also sees the same figure in the window as a ghost. Did the woman in black live in the house with them? Was her presence there known to its residents. Did she stow away there unbeknownst to her family? How'd she get there to hang herself? If she lived there, why was she still writing angry letters to her sister -- which Kipps conveniently finds in his quest to unravel the past. Also, why were her letters stored in the nursery? Did the adopted mother put them there after the boy's death?
Anyway, the gist of it is, this angry woman in black has been killing all the town's children. She lost her own son (though as vengeful as she seems, I'm surprised she didn't kill him herself to get back at her sister who took him) and is now taking everyone else's child, by possessing them and making them harm themselves.
Bentley has lost a child some twenty years ago and his wife is still inconsolable. The local lawyer, Hardy, lost a child and now keeps his other daughter locked up in the basement, the only place he thinks she will be safe from harm. Every time that someone sees the woman in black a child dies. Kipps saw her at the widow's mansion and when he got back to town, a local girl swallowed lye and killed herself. He goes back to the mansion and when he returns to town the Hardy's house has caught fire. He runs in to save the girl they kept locked in the basement and she is still alive and unharmed when he gets there. But in a daze, surrounded by flames, she is the one who deliberately drops the lantern which explodes and consumes her in death. Through the fire, Kipps looks up and sees the Woman in Black on the stairs, witnessing it all. Her visible presence is a sign that more death will follow.
Just then Kipps remembers that his own son is coming to town to spend the weekend with him. I know he's been busy, but it seems to me that this should have occurred to Kipps a couple of days ago, when there was still time to call the visit off. By the time he remembers the boy is coming, it's too late to send a telegram to stop him. So, he tells Bentley they've got to stop the woman in black instead, so she won't kill again. Bentley objects that he doesn't believe in superstition but Kipps cuts him off, "Excuse me, but my son is still alive" and Kipps wants to keep him that way. Yes, it was comforting for Bentley to think his son was safe in heaven and to ignore the talk of a ghost, but how could he ignore proof of all the dead children. Even if there was just a small chance that the superstition was true, Kipps thinks Bentley should have told him about it beforehand.
It's true, but I accept that Bentley was in denial. What about everyone else. If they believed that their children were in danger because Kipps was stirring up sleeping ghosts at the mansion, why just give him the stinkeye. Why not spell out their fears to him? Maybe he wouldn't have believed them, but it would have been worth a shot, wouldn't it? What they didn't know is that this man was haunted by a ghost himself, his own dead wife. He was vulnerable and wanted to believe in life after death. They could have convinced him to believe in murder after death too, had they only tried.
Kipps reasons that if he reunites the woman in black with her son, she will go peacefully into eternity and stop killing. So, he gets Bentley to bring his car to the marsh. He ties a rope to the car grill and holding onto it, dives into the muddy marsh looking for the woman in black's lost son. Within a few minutes he finds the wrecked carriage that the kid died in 50 years ago. It wasn't even 5 feet underground. He easily jets in, fetches out the body and is back on the surface in the blink of an eye.
That body was so easy to find that I'm surprised it didn't float up itself, in the decades since the carriage accident. It's remarkably well deserved, too. Kipps washes off the corpse, lays it on the nursery bed and surrounds it with old birthday cards from the woman in black. She comes, flies around the house creating a clamor and then all is quiet. Kipps assume she is now happy, at peace. He then opens up her grave and buries the child's corpse inside. Mother and son are finally together now. All's well that end's well, he and Bentley think. But the abandoned mansion knows differently as a ghostly echo rambles through it, "Never forget. Never forget."
They head back to town and arrive at the train station just in time to greet Kipps' son and his nanny. The youth really is adorable and in a believable, non-precocious way. Kipps tells the nanny that there has been a change of plans and they will be going back to London immediately. He bids her purchase the tickets, as he stands on the platform with his boy. Talking to Kipps, he doesn't notice when the boy pulls away from him. The child has seen the woman in black and, in a trance, he walks onto the train tracks, as a locomotive steams towards him. Kipps sees the woman in black across the tracks and is overcome with a pall of fear, realizing his son's life is in jeopardy. He jumps onto the tracks to save the boy. Bentley and the nanny look on in horror. The train passes over the tracks and when it is gone we see Kipps and his son intact, still on the rails. They get up and Kipps calls out for Bentley, but the platform is empty. "Daddy, who is that lady," the little boy asks, pointing into the distance. Kipps looks up. It's not the woman in black. It's a woman in white. "That's your mummy." Kipps' dead wife smiles at them in greeting and the small family walks together, into the light. The chagrined woman in black looks on. She's been thwarted after all, as they find a peace together that she will never know.
I have to say that this ending was somewhat of a surprise. I knew that the woman in black's vengeance was not done, but I felt that Kipps' widow would fight her and save the Kipps' family. I thought her love for her husband and child would conquer the woman in black's hate and save them from harm. So, the fact that they died did catch me offguard.
This wasn't a great movie, but due to the authentic detail in costume and sets and Daniel Radcliffe's steadfast performance, I much preferred it over another sequel to The Ring or film of that ilk.